Google Wants To Turn Happy Users Into A Captive Audience

Delicious Bananas

How many calories are in a banana? Google will tell you–but you’ll have to stay on a Google site for the answer.

Wikimedia Commons

Google’s plan to become your entire web experience does, improbably, involve bananas.

Today Google unveiled a new element of Google Search: you can ask it questions about nutrition, like “how many calories are in an avocado,” and the answer will pop right up. No need to click on a link from the search results; the answer you wanted is right there in a big white box at the top of the page.

Google says there are about 1,000 foods currently catalogued, and you can ask (by text or voice search, though, judging from the demonstrations, Google really wants you to use voice search) for lots of different kinds of information. How much potassium is in a banana? What’s a serving size of brown rice? How many carbs are in a baked potato? All those can be answered easily, while never leaving a Google site. Tap on the answer and it’ll expand to reveal more nutritional information that you didn’t ask for.

For the last few years, Google has been quietly changing its focus. Instead of providing a portal to the rest of the internet, as in traditional search results, Google now wants you to stay inside the Google womb. Want to chat? Use Hangouts. Want answers to a question? They’re right here. Want to watch a video or edit a document or find a location or read restaurant reviews or check your calendar or share photos? Want to make phone calls or listen to music or read a book or watch a movie? You can, and Google would prefer you to, stay within Google boundaries while doing all of that.

It’s a marked change from Google’s prior reputation as the biggest best friend of open-source. Google’s change from the wildly popular Gchat to Hangouts wasn’t just a name change; Google also ditched XMPP, the standard that allowed you to use any chat client you wanted (Trillian, Pidgin, Adium, whatever). Now it’s proprietary, which makes it harder to use multiple instant-messaging services simultaneously. Who wants to have one program for AIM and one for Hangouts? You’ll probably just choose Hangouts–exactly what Google wants. Similar is Google’s plan to drop CalDAV, the standard for calendar apps, with a proprietary protocol.

That said, this is a shrewd and not unforeseen development. Google makes its money from ads. It makes more money from ads if it can make better, more specific ads. It can make better, more specific ads if you stay on Google property and feed Google information on what kind of ad might appeal to you. And Google can sell the ad for even more money than that if you’re sticking around on its sites for longer, because your eyeballs will encounter ads for a longer period of time.

But that comes with growing pains. Not from this nutritional info–that, like lots of things that Google does, is actually very useful! Google will tell you that the nutritional info initiative is to save the user time and to provide verified information (Google gets this data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture) that you may not get from a Yahoo Answers page. And that’s true; like most companies, Google wants its customers to enjoy using its products.

Sometimes the desire to keep people within the walled Google compound isn’t so seamless. Google+, the social network that, depending on who you talk to, is either thriving (Google’s perspective) or annoying and best ignored (everyone else’s perspective), is an essential part of Google’s strategy. Can’t have users bouncing off to Twitter or Instagram or Facebook! All that browsing data, all those connections and preferences, all that time spent on those sites–it makes Google’s mouth water. But people don’t much like Google+, as you can tell from a quick visit to your mostly abandoned Google+ page.

This past weekend, I went to the park. I took pictures at the park, and I wanted to share them with my mom. I can’t, offhand, think of a single more typical use case for photo management than sharing Memorial Day barbecue photos with one’s mom. And here’s what I saw when I tried to share them:

Clicking on the “share” button gives you the option to share with just about anyone, but what you see is Google+. Which circles do I want to share with? I don’t know, I don’t use these dumb circles, I just want to send it as an email to my mom. There’s no indication that you can enter an email address in that box, since all of Google is pushing you to use Google+. (You can, by the way, enter an email address, but the system doesn’t catalogue your contacts well so you’ll have to know the email addresses offhand.)

Google wants your entire internet to be the Google internet. Eventually, it even wants to be your internet service provider–it’s already got high-speed Google Fiber in a few locations in the U.S., and now it’s eyeing developing markets. It’s a top-down strategy, and Google is further along that path than any company has ever been.

Google providing services that people like isn’t a trick, any more than any other company that makes things for people to use. But those services are just pixels in a much larger picture–and do you want to trust a private company with your entire internet experience?


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